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What could be more civil than afternoon tea? Jane Malyon thinks the good behaviour associated with afternoon tea should be embraced in business and that the result would be a happier, more productive workforce and nurture better, more enduring business relationships.
She uses the analogy in her book, Play Nicely, since she also runs a company which sends full English afternoon cream teas to people who cannot get out to enjoy them.
Jane’s background is in coaching and business training, including coaching parents of “problem” teenagers, and she says she has seen how far a bit of praise and acknowledgement can go in encouraging good behaviour.
She recalls a very unpleasant experience at work when she was in a meeting in her early 20s and a man kept jabbing at her. It shocked her. She contrasts this with an episode in her late 20s when she and her husband had “an enchanting meeting” where they were served trays of tea, Kitkats and buttered toast. “It was charming and that was over thirty years ago now, but I still hold that company in high esteem and would bend over backwards for them,” she says.
Niceness, she adds, doesn’t need to cost much, but it can have very far-reaching, positive results.
That extends to the way companies treat their employees, says Jane who adopts the persona of an office auntie in her book. Listening to them rather than bullying them pays dividends. “As a coach I’m often sent in after the fact when people are not getting on. Then it’s about repair and it’s harder to put right,” she states.
She thinks behaving nicely in business is especially important in the current economic climate when people are afraid for their jobs. She did a small survey recently and asked what qualities people most looked for in others. Honesty, integrity and doing what you said you would came up most often. “It’s all about how you communicate with people and your mindset,” she says, citing how Pret a Manger call recruitment “treasure hunting”.
She adds that she went to a telesales firm once which paid its staff well, but had huge turnover problems. Within two minutes of arriving she knew why. On the noticeboard in the staff canteen there was a sign saying ‘Shit employee of the week’. “They thought it would act as an incentive,” she says.
Drawing on her work with children, she adds: “It’s like a toddler learning to walk. You don’t criticise him when he falls over. You encourage him. We are all still children and we love to be praised. No-one wants to be bullied. The teenagers I used to work with were often about to be expelled from school. Everyone was on their case, but if I could find something to praise – and it can take creativity sometimes – it could start to reverse the process.”
She adds that in her mediation work most of the problems come because neither side listens to or acknowledges the other. “People get involved in circular conversations because they fail to acknowledge the other person’s feelings. If they can do the equivalent of tea and scones and make eye contact with each other they are well on the way to making some progress,” she says.
Jane combines her coaching with writing and her English Cream Tea Company [www.englishcreamtea.com].
She set up the company in just a few weeks after starting a course about being a key person of influence where she was told she needed to have a product to sell. She was used to having afternoon tea with her grown-up children. She heard of an elderly lady who could no longer go out for afternoon tea. “I thought that must be horrible. That’s when the idea came to be for the business. I could get the tea to go to her, a chilled beautiful tea,” she says.
She was on holiday in Canada at the time and she spent the whole holiday planning the business. She arrived home to find a pile of samples. In just two weeks, she had launched her company.
She believes the different sides of her work come together well. “At afternoon tea you have to behave really nicely,” she says. “No-one steals the cakes, they share. It’s about making time to be nice to people and in that way it’s not so different from coaching. No-one is mean or nasty at afternoon tea. It’s almost against the law.”
*Play Nicely! Best Behaviour…in Business by Jane Malyon is published by Ecademy Press, price £12.99.